Power of Identity

A red and white painting of an eagle.

The new exhibit at the Chicago History Museum in collaboration with the new Warsaw History Museum and the Polish Museum of America that opened March 20, 2023, strives to bring memorabilia and oral history along with cherished documents, limited only by space, of several migrations of Poles to Chicago.  More importantly it strives to answer what it means to be Polish American.  Professor Dominic Pacyga, author of American Warsaw: the Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Polish Chicago, (University of Chicago Press, 2019), in his opening address at the Gala of the Chicago History Museum’s Women’s Guild touched upon this very complicated question whose answer depends on who you ask.

Author Wesley Adamczyk once addressed this very question in one of his many lectures.  In his Polish language book, Kwiaty Polskie na Wygnaniu, Rebis, Poland, 2015 (Polish “Flowers,†referring to children in Deportation) presents a beautiful collection of children’s drawings, poems, letters and remembrances of their homeland, Poland, right after their escape from the Soviet Union’s slave labor camps and the Gulag from 1941/1942 and beyond.  These sickly, malnourished, orphaned children ranging from ages 5 or 6 and upward—younger ones mostly died during their imprisonment and escape—could think only of the warmth and freedom of their family life in their beloved Poland.  It was a freedom harshly disrupted by the Soviets when hundreds of thousands of Poles were deported from Poland starting in 1940, like my mother and sister.  The world still needs to be reminded that it wasn’t only the German Nazis who invaded Poland.  These children’s identity was clearly with Poland.  Adamczyk himself was one of those children who later lost his mother to illness in Tehran and his Polish army officer father to a Soviet bullet in the Katyn Massacres in 1940, when nearly 22,000 Polish officers and intellectuals were murdered by the Soviets.  He wrote about that in his acclaimed book, When God Looked the Other Way (University of Chicago Press, 2004).  Some of this new exhibit addresses this little known but widespread immigration story.

World War II left hundreds of thousands of Poles scattered across the world, from Kazakhstan to Iran, to India and Africa, South America, Mexico, Canada, America as well as England, Scotland, Belgium, France and more.  Today there are over 22 million Poles living outside of Poland, with nearly half of those in the United States and many in the Chicagoland region.  I was born in England when my parents feared returning to Communist Poland after World War II ended, when returning Polish army officers such as my father went missing and were never heard from again, while the land that my mother owned was no longer part of Poland with the shifting borders established by all but the Polish government-in-exile, in London at the time.  It was due to Roosevelt’s and Churchill’s acquiescence to Stalin to end the war and Poland unfortunately became the spoils.  We came to Chicago.

This begs the question; how do we Poles identify?  What is “home†for us?  It’s a question that can be asked of any immigrant to America.  Almost to the time I went to college if anyone asked me what my nationality was, I would answer Polish, without any doubt.  I grew up in the Polish Roman Catholic community of Chicago in the 1950’s and 60’s while attending American schools.  Polish was my first language, and I was only allowed to speak Polish at home where my parents were fiercely patriotic to the Poland they hoped would re-emerge—the Poland in which they grew up during the short-lived years of its freedom between the world wars.  They were also fiercely patriotic to America for giving them refuge, and later they became US citizens.  Our generation of Poles considered ourselves as political refugees but there was constant talk about someday returning to a free and independent Poland. 

The next political wave of immigrants came in the early and mid-1980’s during the Solidarity years, if people could get out of Communist Poland, then under martial law.  That freedom came too late for our family and for many others with the fall of Communism in 1989/90. 

Thus, we assimilated, adapted, married outside our Polish community, and raised our children as “American.† Yet for any immigrant, no matter how long ago our ancestors came to America, there continues to be this nagging tug to the home of our ancestors.  Genealogical research and studies have gained huge momentum with accessible DNA identity profiles, expanding reliable databases, the popularity of television shows tracing ancestry, and the growing questions emerging from curious young minds asking, “so what happened to grandma and grandpa?â€

Like many other ethnic groups who came to America, and still come, to escape poverty and persecution, we ultimately return to our roots, like a mystery we sometimes desperately need to unfold.  This exhibit shows some of those journeys found in Chicago over the decades since Poles first began coming to Chicago.  In Poland there is growing interest in the World War II era generation and what has happened to the Polish diaspora worldwide and especially in North America.  At a conference in Krakow a few years ago on Polish Studies in collaboration with the Polish American Historical Association there were sessions on topics such as The Chicago Polonia, Immigrant Social Identities, Trauma as Collective Memory, etc.  Another in 2017 at the Museum of Emigration in Gdynia focused on the Polish diaspora in North America, where I gave a paper on the power of identity of some Polish Americans in Chicago.  In conjunction with my book, My Sister’s Mother:  A Memoir of War, Exile, and Stalin’s Siberia (University of Wisconsin Press, 2016 and 2019), I have been asked by libraries to give my popular talk, Poland in Chicago: Chicago in Poland.  There seems to be a continuing and growing interest in our past, how we got here, where we see things going.

This timely exhibit at the Chicago History Museum takes you through this Polish immigration journey in the city that has attracted huge numbers of Poles since the mid 1800’s and continues to thrive with a large population of Polish Americans proud of their Polish roots and strong American identity.  The exhibit is up until June 2024, after which it travels to Warsaw.  Worth taking a look.

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My Sister's Mother

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